Academic Fetish: Dirt and Imperial Leather

Wife and servant are the same, but only differ in the name. – Lady Chudleigh

I’ve literally been meaning to write about this book for years — like since I first read it in a seminar in 1997.  Although I’ve read lots of pretty kinky literature in classes, including Venus in Furs, this is one of the most interesting books on fetishes I’ve ever read.   It’s called Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest by academic Anne McClintock.

imperial-leather1What makes this book such a delight to the fetish reader?  Not its prose, which isn’t as hard to get through as Foucault, but is definitely of the post-modern, post-colonial critical style.  This isn’t meant as a complaint by the way, but more by way of a warning that you probably won’t want to buy this for pleasure reading unless you tend to read academic texts more generally.

imperial-leather2There’s a lot of good stuff in the book on issues of race and fetish as well as images of imperialism in 19th century popular culture.  But it’s Chapter 3: Race, Cross Dressing and the Cult of Domesticity that makes for the most amazing reading.   It’s an account of the secret marriage of upper class, Cambridge graduate and barrister, Arthur Munby and serving woman Hannah Cullwick whom he met on the street.  They had a secret romance and marriage (facts Arthur only revealed to his family a few weeks before his death) based, in part, on Munby’s fetishization of their class differences and her status as his “slave” (she wore a leather wrist band to denote her status as “owned” by him and a locked chain around her neck for which only he had the key as further proof of her bondage to him).  He was especially fond of seeing her during and after she had labored — “in her dirt” (see image on the right) as he called it.  Both Munby and Cullwick kept diaries of their experiences / relationship, which makes for detailed knowledge of their relationship.

This fetishizing of class and Cullwick’s servant status was immortalized by Munby who took contrasting photographs  of Hannah dressed as a fine lady (her secret status by marriage) when they traveled together, as a serving woman and as a slave.

imperial-leather3Cullwick was stunning as a model (I wish I could find more of the shots of her on-line).  She posed for Munby cross-dressed as a boy, as a laborer and even as a gentleman of his own class.   Their private games were of her slavery.  She addressed him as “Massa,” knelt at his feet, licked his boots and washed his feet (again, we know this from their diaries which he donated to Cambridge though sadly the accounts of her “training” were removed).

One of the things I found quite striking as an account of fetishizing work was this passage:

…she would arrange to theatrically scrub the front doorsteps on her knees as Munby sauntered down the street, languidly swinging his cane… Cullwick visited Munby frequently “in her dirt” after a grueling day’s work, her clothes dank and filthy, her face deliberately blackened with boot polish, her hands red and raw; only to pose later that same evening freshly dressed as an upper-class lady in finery.  They spent happy hours mulling over the ordeals of her workload, ritualistically counting and recounting the incredible number of boots she cleaned. (page 137)

With material like Munby’s photographs and diaries both left to work from, it’s not surprising that there are a number of books discussing the couple’s history.  What I like about Imperial Leather is McClintock’s enlightened discussion of S/M in relation to the couple.  She sees both its theater and the realities of power as distributed between the two people in this relationship.   This means that unlike other works, Imperial Leather reads Cullwick not as a victim, but as an actor in her own slavery.

As McClintock writes (paraphrasing Foucault):

To argue that in S/M “whoever is the ‘master’ has the power and whoever is the slave has not,” is to read theater for reality; it is to play the world forward.  The economy of S/M, however is the economy of conversion: master to slave, adult to baby, power to submission, man to woman, pain to pleasure, human to animal and back again…. S/M is a theater of transformation; it “plays the world backward.”

I wish I had time to write more about this, but will happily return to discussion of it should anyone be interested.  And, maybe, even if no one but me is.

9 thoughts on “Academic Fetish: Dirt and Imperial Leather

  1. Janet

    I’m interested!
    There are just so many academics in the spanking community, everyone seems to be writing a thesis all the time! (Maybe something to do with staying a schoolgirl?) However no one ever discusses S/M (especially this community’s brand with discipline) in any kind of academic sense in relation to the world and society. Right: “it’s alot like life but played between the sheets”. Thats a pretty basic analysis of it, the Foucault idea. But I’m truly interested in what it means it in our society, and what it’s an outcome of (if anything.)
    Interesting, lady.

  2. janice

    I remember hearing about Munby when I was in college (=many= years ago). At the time, my class delighted in thinking of him as a typically perverse Victorian. The Victorians all seemed to be such hypocrites to us! Except for some jokes about whips and chains, no one seemed to be talking overtly about S/M back then, and certainly not with anything approaching reasonable academic consideration. I’d forgotten about Munby. I’m glad you mentioned this book and I’m definitely going to take a look at it.

  3. Mija

    Janet: Well, your comment about everyone writing something is certainly true about most of the PB authors. And I can vouch for the school girl thing. I’ve also wondered if the sense of never being done / guilt feeds into the fetish as well. I suspect yes.
    I’ve wondered for a while why so few of us actually research stuff to do with masochism and D/s as our areas of academic interest. I’m not quite sure, but I suspect it’s that uncomfortable sensation of feeling exposed. And also a feeling that it’s hard to get much distance emotionally. I’ve loved reading / listening to S/m stuff discussed in an academic context yet rarely have found the courage / ability to participate.
    That said, I do have some ideas for my next project that would look at images of parental and sexual violence in Chicana literature. There’s something about the masochistic heroine going on there.
    Janice: Munby is definitely interesting as both a photographer and a writer (I’d wondered if you’d found reason to study him though I know he’s past your period). But I love the way Anne reads Cullwick’s journals as something written with agency rather than just to please Munby. Her power in the relationship and her sense of self seems extraordinary.
    I’d love to read your take on her / them when you’ve taken a look at what’s out there.

  4. Tom

    Thanks for this wonderful review. I’ve read some articles by Anne McClintock, but I didn’t know about that book. I’ll try to get it!

  5. Karl Friedrich Gauss

    Hey, great book review. And of a title that I’d never have stumbled across on my own. These folks seem ahead of their time, playing with, sexualizing, the class differences of their era in what seems like a fun and artistic way. And the fact that they kept diaries of it all argues that they knew that folks in the future would just love to read about what they’d done.
    And yeah, the academic world is rife with S/M themes deep within the fabric of its institutions. No surprise that there are many closeted fans within the academic ranks.

  6. Penny Docherty

    Fascinating stuff! The phrase ‘theatre of exchange’ is a very useful one. I’d love to know more about this couple.
    Back when first starting my PhD I desperately wanted to write about the erotic elements of supervisor/student relationships and power, charisma and pleasure in the academy, but I sensible (possibly too sensible) realised that no-one would ever publish it. Now that I’m a few years older and care less about academic success, I’m less sensitive to it – which is a shame, because quite a lot of my kink education came in between, with that whole ‘once you make some power dynamics visible, a lot more start appearing everywhere you look’ effect.

  7. Mija

    Thanks for the kind words, I’m glad you liked the discussion. I wish I’d had time to add more research.
    It’s interesting you mention power dynamics and faculty student relationships. I remember reading something by Peter Lowenberg years ago (like in the 1980s) about PhD student / faculty relationships being like the Oedipal relationship, including the tendency of the student to need to critically “kill” the father.
    I’ve had mixed feelings about the idea of making kink my research interest. On the one hand, yes, because I’m interested in it, on the other hand, I do wonder about developing a critical gaze toward something in which I’ve always taken such pleasure.
    Thanks for reminding me I want to look at this material again. Someday there’ll be time…


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